At 80, award-winning saxophonist PJ Perry is still rocking new residency and ESO dates

At the age of 80, PJ Perry holds his first extended residency anywhere with a quintet of talented colleagues and friends, immersing the art he has pursued for over 65 years with the energy of someone one who is half his age.

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For about six months, Edmonton’s best-kept jazz secret has been cooking at a small downtown restaurant every Wednesday night. Set in a display case, a saxophonist many consider a national treasure ushers small crowds in with his expert band serving up classic bop and ballads.

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At the age of 80, PJ Perry holds his first extended residency anywhere with a quintet of gifted colleagues and friends, beating down the art he has pursued for over 65 years with the energy of someone one who is half his age — he even brushed off a case of COVID-19 in October — and the kind of intuitive wisdom it takes a lifetime to find.

Listen to him. See it. Feel it. He is at the top of his game.

“I feel like I’ve finally taken off,” he admits.

Catching this quintet of stars in the privacy of Rigoletto’s Cafe on a recent Wednesday, I was quickly caught up in this dusty old cliche brought up to date – the alto saxophonist had been taken over by an intangible spirit from the underworld of jazz, as if the instrument were playing him.

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His view of Georgia was splendid. Charlie Parker’s confirmation has really echoed over the decades. Later, A Night In Tunisia found an irresistible spongy walking groove with stopping surprises.

Perry’s band includes trumpeter Bob Tildesley, pianist Chris Andrew and two Montreal transplants, bassist Paul Johnston and drummer David Lang. They sound like a band. This same band recorded a new album of nine Perry tunes. Twice. After recording last spring, they returned at the end of August to start again.

“The added blessing of having Rigoletto was that we could play the songs and get familiar with them,” Perry explains. “Recording was born out of the pandemic. I realized we had this great studio in Sherwood Park (DanLyn Studios) with a Bosendorfer piano, and I had nothing but support and enthusiasm from the guys in the band.

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Veteran trumpeter Tildesley was also featured on Perry’s 1977 album Sessions, the first of more than a dozen albums the reedman recorded as frontman or co-frontman, including the Juno-winning in 1989, My Ideal. However, composing remains a challenge. I wondered how musicians develop the sense of taste.

“Over a lifetime of dedication and love, your subconscious adapts to the idiom and by being selective in your listening tastes, listening to the greats, all contribute to what is valid and what is not.”

As a follower of bebop since his teenage years, Perry admits he “doesn’t break new ground”.

“I just try to be true to the music with a worthwhile melody and interesting chord changes to improvise on. Musicians still have to play together and listen to each other, and they have to swing, the missing ingredient in 99% of the music played these days.

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At the same time, he says, “it’s always a new experience.

“It’s about being able to evoke emotion, passion and fire. When you reach a certain level of ability, you are able to tastefully express it in a solo. It’s a constant search and it’s always different because moods change. You feel different every time you put the horn in your face and it’s different for different people in the group.

PJ Perry is seen at Rigoletto's Cafe in Edmonton, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021. He plays a weekly show on Wednesdays.
PJ Perry is seen at Rigoletto’s Cafe in Edmonton, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021. He plays a weekly show on Wednesdays. Photo by Ian Kucerak /Postmedia

The as yet unnamed album will be released this spring on Cellar Live Records. In the meantime, the live dates continue to cook with what Perry calls, “maybe my first task force.”

Paul John Guloien (his Norwegian name) was born in Calgary and first played piano and clarinet. His father, bandleader Paul Perry, gave him an alto sax when he was hospitalized with polio at age 11. His true musical immersion occurred during many summers in Sylvan Lake where his father’s dance group played at Varsity Hall. Spending time with guest musicians and playing in the band from the age of 14 contributed to a very unique learning experience.

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“When I heard the young musicians in my dad’s band playing afternoon jam sessions, I was intrigued, and we used to have black rhythm and blues dance bands and play at the Varsity Hall. I used to hang out in their cabin and they had one of those portable record players with them with the latest Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. I guess I heard the emotion. Understood. I knew it was worth pursuing and dedicating your life to.

Then there was the day his father introduced him to the 1950 release Charlie Parker With Strings. It was a landmark for “Yardbird” Parker, and “enormous” for the young Perry, already in love with bebop and the “emotion, ability, creativity and fire of the legendary saxophonist – there is no no end.”

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Perry put together a special tribute to Parker With Strings almost a decade ago with his late friend Tommy Banks, but now the music will be recreated with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra bringing new life to the tunes of Gershwin, Porter and d ‘others.

“It was the most melodic, listenable and familiar Parker music of the time, and among his finest recordings. The whole idea is daunting. You are following in the footsteps of a giant, so you have to – if I can be so bold – a consummate talent to do it justice. It’s something I would never have attempted until I felt confident to do it with respect.

The rest of the concert will include two parts of a special jazz concerto for saxophone and orchestra: Dreaming Of The Masters IV by local educator-trumpeter-composer Alan Gilliland which was written to showcase Perry. This project saw a contingent from Edmonton in the Czech Republic in the summer of 2019 record with the FILMharmonic Orchestra of Prague (for Bent River Records).

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While small-band jazz remains his ultimate field of expression, Perry can’t deny that playing with an orchestra brings its own particular thrill.

“It’s amazing. It’s an indication of the breadth and breadth of jazz music, and performing on a concert stage with an orchestra like that was literally my childhood dream come true. It’s very special.

It’s not his first time. Perry recorded an entire album with ESO in 1999, a superb Juno-nominated project produced by Banks. He even married into the “band” after meeting his wife (retired ESO double bass player) Rhonda Taft while touring with the orchestra 40 years ago.

We skip a few decades of Perry’s history: career moves to Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal and to Europe; his long working friendship with Banks, with Rob McConnell and others; his work as a featured soloist in the 2010 Broadway hit Come Fly Away, which fused songs by Frank Sinatra and choreography by Twyla Tharpe. He has shared stages with dozens of top performers and singers in jazz and beyond, and was awarded the Order of Canada in 2016.

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“I feel like I have the tools and the ability to function in both mediums,” says Perry. “I have never felt stronger, more capable and more in control of my instrument than I do now. It has taken me my whole life to experience the freedom to spontaneously create music and play what I hear in my head. .

While the Rigaletto concerts continue, Perry will be forced to take a break on the road, so call ahead to avoid disappointment.

yegarts@postmedia.com

PREVIEW

PJ Perry Quintet Residence

Or Rigoletto Cafe, 10305 100 Ave.

When 5:30 p.m.-8 p.m., every Wednesday

Tickets To free

PJ Perry Quintet in concert

When February 11-12

Or Yardbird Suite, 11 Tommy Banks Road

Tickets $25 at yardbirdsuite.com

ESO Pops: PJ Perry Plays Charlie Parker With Strings

When March 3 (7:30 p.m.) and March 5 (2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.)

Or Winspear Centre, 4 Sir Winston Churchill Sq.

Tickets From $32, available online at winspearcentre.com

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